Homily of Bishop Kevin at Knock Novena 2016

The Joy of Love: No Easy Recipes

Homily of Bishop Kevin Doran at the Knock Novena, Sunday 21st August 2016


Will only a few be saved?

“Will only a few be saved?” It’s the kind of question you might expect from someone who has lost hope. Thirty years ago, I was Chaplain at UCD. Each year, when Easter had passed, the focus always switched to exams. But sometimes, even as early as January or February, when students were struggling with the post-Christmas blues, the signs of anxiety would begin to show in some of the students. “Is it true that there is a very high failure rate in First Arts?”, I would be asked. Wanting to be honest but encouraging at the same time, I would answer: “Quite a few do fail, but the vast majority pass, and many do very well”. It is important to be honest about the challenges that face us, the mountains we have to climb, but we don’t want to give up before we have even started. Often when we get to the top, there is a beautiful view.

This is the approach Pope Francis seems to take in his letter of encouragement on the “Joy of Love”. He reminds us that the Scriptures are filled with stories of family life in which the love of a man and woman for one another and for their children reflects the love of God who created them. “We must be grateful” he says “that most people value family relationships that are permanent and marked by mutual respect. We are grateful too for the witness of marriages which have not only proved lasting, but also fruitful and loving”. I can think of many married couples among my own family and friends whose love has grown deeper and more relaxed over the years, even when they faced significant challenges.

In the course of my parish visitation over the past couple of years, I have met many elderly couples in their homes, whose children have long since grown up and started families of their own. They look forward to visits from their grand-children after school, but most of all they seem to be content to be back where they started, just the two of them, sharing their lives together. We have a lovely tradition in the Diocese, once a year, of gathering together to celebrate with those couples who are marking the different jubilees of their marriage.

In his letter “Amoris Laetitia”, Pope Francis captures this in a beautiful passage in which he compares the love of old age to wine that has been allowed to mature over time.

Just as a good wine begins to “breathe” with time, so too the daily experience of fidelity gives married life richness and “body”. Fidelity has to do with patience and expectation. Its joys and sacrifices bear fruit as the years go by and the couple rejoices to see their children’s children. The love present from the beginning becomes more conscious, settled and mature as the couple discover each other anew day after day, year after year. Saint John of the Cross tells us that ‘old lovers are tried and true’. They ‘are outwardly no longer afire with powerful emotions and impulses, but now taste the sweetness of the wine of love, well-aged and stored deep within their hearts’. Such couples have successfully overcome crises and hardships without fleeing from challenges or concealing problems”.

An essential part of this, of course, is learning to be merciful to one another. Some of you may be familiar with the writings of the Indian Jesuit Anthony DeMello. In a little reflection, he paints a pen picture of a woman who found that mercy in her relationship with her husband. She says:

I was neurotic for years. I was anxious and depressed and selfish. Everyone kept telling me to change. I resented them and I agreed with them, and I wanted to change, but simply couldn’t, no matter how hard I tried. Then one day someone said to me, Don’t change. I love you just as you are. Those words were music to my ears: Don’t change, Don’t change. Don’t change . . . I love you as you are. I relaxed. I came alive. And suddenly I changed! 

So I think, if a young couple were asking me today, “Is there a high failure rate in marriage?”, I would possibly give them the same kind of answer: “Quite a few do fail, but the vast majority succeed, and many do very well.”

Pope Francis emphasises the need to present marriage in a much more positive light. Too often he says, we have focused on rules and regulations and we have found it difficult “to present marriage as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment”. “Young people who are baptised”, he says “should be encouraged to understand that the sacrament of marriage can enrich their prospects of love and that they can be sustained by the grace of Christ in the Sacrament and by the possibility of participating fully in the life of the Church”.

Seek to enter by the Narrow Gate

Our Gospel today encourages us to “enter by the narrow gate”. I think this is a good symbol for the generosity and sacrifice that is part of love. If you want to go in the narrow gate, you have to let go of your baggage.

When we have been offended or let down forgiveness is possible and desirable, but no one can say that it is easy. The truth is that “family communion can only be preserved and perfected through a great spirit of sacrifice. It requires, in fact, a ready and generous openness of each and all to understanding, to forbearance, to pardon, to reconciliation.” 

It is the gift of self that puts the joy into marriage. That doesn’t mean that anybody is called to be a “doormat”, but where the focus is all on me and my agenda and my fulfilment, there is no room for the joy to enter in.

The spirit of generosity and self-giving comes more naturally when we have a sense of gratitude for the love that we have received. That gives us confidence; it gives us solid ground on which we can stand; and it helps us to take risks for others. St. John says it very beautifully:

“So we know and believe the love God has for us. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love.  We love, because he first loved us.

The Ones Who Don’t Succeed

The Gospel tells us that “many will try to enter but will not succeed”. Pope Francis talks about how the love of a young couple preparing for marriage “can prove contagious and foster the growth of friendship and fraternity in the Christian community of which they are a part”. But he also recognises that, some couples entering into marriage start at a disadvantage, because they are not adequately prepared. “Sadly” he says “many couples marry without really knowing one another. They have enjoyed each other’s company and done things together, but without facing the challenge of revealing themselves and coming to know who the other person truly is”.

Learning to love someone does not happen automatically, nor can it be taught in a workshop just prior to the celebration of marriage. For every couple, marriage preparation begins at birth. What they received from their family should prepare them to know themselves and to make a full and definitive commitment. Those best prepared for marriage are probably those who learned what Christian marriage is from their own parents, who chose each other unconditionally and daily renew this decision.

Francis writes about the emotional and spiritual journey upon which couples embark as they leave their homes and their own parents and seek to grow into a deeper relationship of mutual love and dependence. “As the word of God tells us, ‘a man leaves his father and his mother’ (Gen 2:24). This does not always happen, and a marriage is hampered by the failure to make this necessary sacrifice and surrender.”

When I reflect back on the two recent Synods of Bishops, on “Amoris Laetitia” and indeed on my own experience as a priest, I am convinced that we need to seriously review what we offer to young people in terms of practical, emotional and spiritual preparation for marriage. That, as Pope Francis says, is really a responsibility of the whole Christian community and it is not just about formal courses. It is also about sharing experience and sharing a vision.

No Easy Recipes

No two human situations are quite the same. For that reason, Pope Francis reminds us, it is completely wrong in the case of divorce and remarriage to “pigeon-hole” people. Some people are abandoned by their husband or wife through no fault of their own. Some don’t seem to understand the meaning of sacrifice at all. Others drift from one relationship to another, others, while others – perhaps after a short-lived and ill-prepared marriage, find themselves in “a second union consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, generous self-giving, Christian commitment.”

Others make heroic efforts in the face of very real difficulties, often caused by circumstances over which they have little or no control. Pope Francis refers to the lack of adequate affordable housing. We have seen in our own society the situation in which families having been dragged through the courts are left  homeless because the banks have foreclosed on their mortgages, while those same banks have abused their economic power with apparent impunity. Is it any wonder that, under such pressure, relationships are fractured and sometimes crumble away.

While it is important to celebrate and to be encouraged by the joy which so many couples have in their love for one another and for their children, we cannot ignore the pain of those for whom married life does not work out. It is not good enough that we watch people walk away. While divorce and remarriage are clearly not the ideal and there are no “easy recipes”, Catholics in this situation are our “brothers and sisters” and Pope Francis says, very clearly:

“they need to feel, not as excommunicated members of the Church, but ….as living members, able to live and grow in the Church and experience her as a mother who welcomes them always, who takes care of them with affection and encourages them along the path of life and the Gospel.…I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, “always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street”

Divorce, Remarriage and the Eucharist:

Christian marriage, like the Eucharist, is all about communion and the gift of self. The Church teaches that the love of husband and wife is the visible sign of the love of Jesus himself. For that reason, divorce followed by remarriage seems to conflict with communion. How can we say we are in communion with Christ when our communion with one another has so obviously broken down? What does Pope Francis say about that? Some people are disappointed because Pope Francis didn’t say “Everyone can come to Holy Communion from now on”. Others are upset because he did say “No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel” and they feel that maybe he is too soft

Pope Francis actually makes it clear that the Church must be absolutely faithful to the teaching of Jesus and it is the responsibility of pastors to help people understand it and apply it in their own lives. But he also says (and I am using my own words here) that nobody, not even the Pope, can enter into that space where each person in his or her conscience, is alone with God.

“Neither the Synod nor this exhortation”, Pope Francis says “could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature, and applicable to all cases. What is possible is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases, one which would recognise  that since the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases, the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same”.

This teaching about personal conscience is not new. It is as old as the Church, but it has often been forgotten both by individual Catholics and by Church leaders. To those who don’t care one way or the other, it won’t make any difference, but to those who are sincere, it is both challenging and liberating.

Returning to the theme of God’s mercy, Pope Francis reminds us of the parable of the man who had the hundred sheep and, when one of them was lost, he left the ninety nine and went after the one that was lost. “Jesus himself”, the Pope says is the shepherd of the hundred, not just of the ninety-nine. He loves them all. On the basis of this realization, it will become possible for “the balm of mercy to reach everyone, believers and those far away, as a sign that the kingdom of God is already present in our midst”